Bill O’Reilly, Congressman Charles Rangel and War

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 12 March 2003 0 Comments
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"In your book, WHY CHRISTIANITY MUST CHANGE OR DIE, are you willing to admit the possibility that Christianity needs to die? Does not the faith of the future have to be a completely new faith?"


    You may be right but I don't think so. I will admit that the Christianity I envision for the future will be a Christianity so different that many will not recognize it. Perhaps this means that you and I are saying the same thing.

    My study of history teaches me that nothing ever really begins as something new. All ideas and even all religious systems evolve out of the past. Monotheism is a gift to the world from that period of time that some call the Axial Age (3000 -200 B.C.E.). It represented a natural step forward out of the polytheistic religions of the past.

    I do not believe that anyone can start a new religion. I do think that a new Christianity can emerge out of the old. Christianity has never been static. We began in the womb of Judaism in the first century. It was a Judaism that had been impacted by the Zoroastrian religion of the Persians during the period of the exile. It had been influnced by the Baal worshipers of its Canaanite neighbours. Even earlier the Jewish concept of the oneness of God came with Moses out of Egypt where the Jews had been a conquered slave people. It appears that the religious reform under the Pharaoh named Amenhotep IV had attempted to purify the religion of the Egyptians in the name of radical monotheism. Amenhotep was defeated and replaced on the throne by a rebellion led by the priests of the various Gods of the Egyptians and their shrines were put back into business. There is a possibility that the reform of this Pharaoh took root not in Egypt but among the Jews under the leadership of Moses.

    When Christianity moved out of Judaism and into the Mediteranean world it took on the coloration of the mystery cults and even some of the virtues of the Gods of the Olympus. It also adopted the structures of the Empire.

    When Christianity interacted with the Renaisance in the late Middle Ages it produced the radical changes of the Protestant Reformation. The Enlightenment of the 18th century gave us an increasingly non-theistic Christianity on one side and a reactionary fundamentalism on the other.

    Religious systems are always churning, changing, interacting and growing. There is a human tendancy to try to stop that process and to feel secure in the conviction that the worshiper now possesses the total truth and no more change will be necessary. That is when religious people begin to make excessive claims like: This is the only true church, Our Bible is the inerrant Word of God, Our pope is infallible. It never works. The "unchanging truth of God" is always changing. Truth keeps exploding.

    I want us to take the various ingredients of Christianity and ask 'What was the God experience that caused our religious forebears to interact with the culture and knowledge of their day and in the process to write Scriptures, create creeds, develop doctrines and promulgate dogma?' Once we uncover that driving expereience then we can try to discern how we might explain that experience in the language of our day. This is why all religious systems are constantly in flux. They either change or they die. An unchanging religion always becomes idolatrous.

    I want to honor my religious past without being controlled by it. I want the freedom to explore my faith tradition without the institutional put-offs that come with such authoritarian pronouncements as, 'the Bible says' or 'the Church teaches'. So my goal in ministry is to walk inside my faith tradition without being bound by it, to carry on a constant dialogue between my faith and the 21st century which I inhabit, to accept no fomulatiopn of God as final, and to walk into the mystery of God every day. That is why I do not think I or anyone else can start a new religion. My hope is that Christianity will continue to evolve until it incorporates so much of the truth of the future that it no longer appears to be bound by the definitions of the past. That will be a new thing, but also a profoundly old thing at the same time. Christianity is finally a journey beyond all words. I intend to enjoy that trip.

John S. Spong




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